Kohima, Dec. 6 (EMN): The Konyak tribe of Nagaland, once described as ‘fearsome headhunters,’ have practised the art of tattooing for generations as a way of life. However, with the coming of Christianity, the practice is said to have completely stopped since the ‘60s.
Noting the need to document the ‘dying art’ of her tribe, 37-year old Phejin Konyak, a granddaughter of a tattooed head-hunter and warrior Ahon Konyak, has taken the onus of writing a book “The Konyaks: The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters” documenting in depth the unique culture.
Coinciding with Nagaland’s Statehood Day at the Hornbill Festival at the Naga Heritage Village Kisama on Dec. 1, the book was released by the president of India, Ram Nath Kovind; governor of Nagaland PB Acharya and Chief Minister TR Zeliang.
Talking to media persons at Kisama, Phejin Konyak pointed to the dying art of tattooing in her tribe. She said that the coming of Christianity became a strong force which compelled the tattoo artists to burn all their equipments ‘as people think it was against Christianity.’
‘Whatever was practised in our traditional lifestyle was seen as the work of “pagan or devil’s work” and the coming of Christianity has put a stop to all our traditional practices,’ Konyak said. She said, ‘For Konyaks, tattooing was a way of life–a form of rite of passage and cycle of life to another.’ She pointed out that ‘a Konyak has to be in the lifestyle to have every tattoo pattern on their body’ for every stages of life i.e., childhood, puberty, adult, engagement, motherhood etc.
A woman who is strongly rooted in her culture and traditions, Konyak has got some beautiful tattoo patterns too, with the latest pattern having been created by an 85-year old woman in 2016 after much persuasion. She asserted ‘I would prefer that I join my ancestors after life rather than what modernity says.’
‘My identity is a Konyak. For me my culture is what defines my identity. Without my identity of Konyak, there is no meaning,’ Konyak said.
When asked if she saw the possibility of learning the art of tattoo again, she replied that there was no possibility as the culture had stopped 50 years ago. She lamented, ‘They are the last people who have the tattoos and once they die, they will never see a Konyak tattoo person again. The culture dies with them.’ She said that the idea to write the book was conceptualised in August 2014 when she visited the Indian Museum in Kolkata and met its director to discuss about Naga artefacts in the collection of the museum.
Describing her journey, Phejin Konyak said to have walked to more than 60 villages under Mon district with backpacks carrying ration. She recalled how she nearly gave up as it was physically very tiring. However, her determination and passion to retrace her unique culture kept her going.
She informed that her publisher wanted to release her book in Delhi in the month of October. However being a ‘strong pro-Naga,’ she wanted her book to be exposed on Naga soil.
Phejin Konyak is a writer and a farmer who is undertaking coffee plantation in her village.
Also speaking about the experience was Peter Bos, the photographer of the book—a professional portrait photographer from Eindhoven, the Netherlands. He said, ‘The whole process towards making of the book has been wonderful and fun.’
Calling his journey an ‘amazing experience’, Bos was excited that he had been able to make good and strong connection with the people when going through all the villages, speaking with the old men and women of the region, listening to their stories around camp fires, drinking tea and eating their food.
On the lost art of tattooing, Bos said ‘The most beautiful part of the tattoo is that it’s so deeply connected with their culture—it’s not just a tattoo of decorations as is seen in the West but it is a way of being and living where every tattoo has a profound meaning.’
Describing the book as ‘beautiful’ which eloquently highlighted the art of tattoo among the Konyak people, Bos said that the depth of the tattoo culture among the community goes much further down which is more like a life philosophy.
It was informed that the book was available on Amazon India. It will be made available in the UK, the US, and Europe too in January 2018. 2000 copies were printed for the first edition.
The Konyak: The last of the tattooed antiquity